During 2012 I was living in Paris, working as a tour guide for Fat Tire Bike Tours and City Segway Tours. It’s an American company based in Austin, Texas, who gave this wanderlust-filled graduate the opportunity to live and work in the City of Lights over the season. One of the perks of job, apart from the obvious, was that I could experience the delights of Fat Tire in other cities. So, after my jaunt in Cornwall, I spent a few days in London re-aquainting myself with my favourite city.
My good friend Kate had decided to join me, so we waited outside the Queensway Tube for our guide. Enter scene, a typical twenty-something in slouchy jeans and a rumpled t-shirt – this, was our guide. Just a short walk from the Tube is the Fat Tire office where we would pick up our steeds for the morning. All bicycles are named by the guides and my red beauty was named Sherlock Holmes.
Ah, it was a beautiful day in London town. You could not have asked for better. The sun was shining and the city was bursting with the excitement from the Olympic Games. I couldn’t wait to hit the road! That would have to wait, however, because we all had to manoeuvre our bicycles up the footpath crowded with tourists and tacky souvenirs, and then fight through a tour group slouching behind a flag and across Bayswater Road into Kensington Gardens. My goodness what a struggle! Lucky I had my red beauty to use as a battering ram. Then we entered the British beauty of the gardens and slowly rode towards Kensington Palace as our first stop.
Originally bought by William III and Mary II in 1689, the couple moved there from the official residency of Whitehall Palace to move away from the damp of the Thames which was affecting William’s health and exacerbated his asthma. Matt, our guide, made this history lesson fun and interesting, as he did for all the sites.
Before long we were on our way again for a beautiful ride through the park towards Buckingham Palace. Along the way we saw the mounted Queen’s guard on their way to the changing of the guard which happens every day at the Palace and has been seen by 99.9% of visitors of London.
The day we chose to do our bike tour of London also happened to be the day that the mens’ road race was on. There were road closures everywhere and the footpaths were more densely packed than Myer during the Boxing Day sales. By this point my firm but gentle battering ram technique was finely honed. Matt was a marvel when the usual tour was thrown out the window and he had to improvise a route to the National Gallery from the Palace. We ended up going a through a back alley that was only wide enough for pedestrian traffic to move in one direction. So what did Matt do? He grabbed the group’s bikes, hauled them one by one above his head and squeezed through the people to the other side. Wow! Those bikes ain’t light! He couldn’t carry us, mores the pity, so it was every man for themselves as we pushed our way through the throng.
Oh! What’s that I see before me? Is it a plane? Is it a bird? No, it’s Nelson on top of a big pole! Welcome to Trafalgar Square!
But by far and away my favourite thing on this square is the National Gallery. It is wonderfully free to enter, as many of London’s galleries and museums are, and holds works of the great masters in a truly magnificent building. If you have time, duck into the Gallery restaurant for lunch, or even afternoon tea as I did once. Hot, strong, tea and fluffy scones with yummy jam. No apricot, which I was gutted about, but the strawberry was nice and comes a close second in my books.
One of my favourite movies of all time is ‘Wild Target’, and in one of the scenes when Emily Blunt’s character rides her red bicycle through the National Gallery, ringing her bell to the artworks. Now, we are not allowed to do this, so I did the next best thing and rode my bike in front of the National Gallery, (completely against the rules), and Kate took a picture of me doing it. It’s things like this that give a holiday a little extra spark of excitement and zing when you remember it.
You could choose from a number of eateries near Trafalgar Square for your lunch. Kate and I went into a pub and had chip butties (is that how you spell it?) When in London, and really the rest of the UK, if you need to go to the loo and the thought of using the public toilets fills you with dread, duck into a pub and use theirs! Usually clean, and free!
Right down the Palace of Whitehall, which was helpfully blocked off because of the road race, past Horse Guards parade and one neck exercise later to catch a peek of Number 10, we arrived at Westminster Abbey. I should point out that on all Fat Tire Tours, you do not go into any of the sights. The purpose of the tour is to show the sights and illustrate its history and cultural significance. Oftentimes, tour guides give helpful hints on how to avoid the queues at the busiest sites. From me to you, as your guide, here is a top tip! For Westminster Abbey, the 5pm Evensong service is the best way to get in the building without the crowds. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not. Go and experience the building as it was meant to be experienced! The great space filling the majestic roar of the organ which sends vibrations through your chest. Once Evensong is over, you can walk through the Abbey and take a peek at the building, and the people who are buried there such as Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, and William Shakespeare.
One the ride back from the Abbey back towards Bayswater we rode along the mens’ road race route which was still handily blocked off from all usual traffic. It wasn’t blocked for the Queen though, who we saw zoom past us in her big Range Rover. It was fantastic to have the road to ourselves without the pressure of cars hovering in our blind spots.
A final zoom through Hyde Park, past the Serpentine, to finish our tour behind the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens.
Thank you Fat Tire Bike Tours London!